Clemson and Its Perception Among College Football’s Elite

Clemson Appears to be More Than Just a Regional Football Power, So Where’s the Public Disconnect?

Several years ago, Stewart Mandel’s separation of college football’s major programs into tiers from Kings to Peasants provoked a fierce backlash from Georgia fans who resented their school’s placement in the Baron tier rather than among the Kings alongside SEC brethren Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. When Mandel revisited his rankings this summer, Georgia remained among the Barons. Whether or not Bulldog fans have a right to gripe, the rankings are interesting for the light they shed on the ACC. Even with lackluster decades, Florida State and Miami remain among the Kings, while Clemson and Virginia Tech are included with the Barons.

Despite Mandel’s ranking, Clemson is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other programs of the Baron tier. Possessing “SEC-type” fans, whatever that means, one of the most loyal donor bases in the country, a beautiful campus, and a rich tradition, including a national title and more ACC championships than any other program, Clemson seems built to be a King. But although often described as “Auburn with a lake,” the Tigers of South Carolina generally receive much less hype than those of Alabama. The ACC is seen as belonging to Florida State and Virginia Tech; only when extremely talented skill players return, as in 2008 or 2012, does Clemson get any substantial preseason hype, generally the best indicator of a program’s respectability. In last summer’s Conference Re-Draft, Clemson was picked 37th, the last of Mandel’s Barons tier to go off the board and well behind #14 Virginia Tech and #26 Auburn despite owning a generally more successful basketball program and a vastly more prominent baseball program.

In the public relations battle which dominates conference realignment and determinations of a program’s relative value, Clemson has clearly been on the losing side. Notorious for winning games they should lose and and losing even more games they should win, the Tigers haven’t truly been a national presence since Danny Ford left in 1990.  I live in Illinois; when I tell people around me that Clemson is my alma mater, I’m usually greeted with a blank stare, surely an even worse reaction than Mandel’s failure of a hypothetical Montanan to recognize a football helmet.

A comparison with Auburn and Virginia Tech, two schools with whom Clemson has much in common, might shed some light on the Tigers’ losing battle to gain the national spotlight. Despite Mandel’s tier lists, Auburn and Virginia Tech would generally be counted as national powers, while Clemson would probably be thought of as a regional power. All three schools were founded as agricultural or technical schools, feature strong engineering programs, are located in rural areas of the Southern hill country, and have strong and passionate fan bases. And all three play major season-ending rivalry games, although Clemson and Virginia Tech generally get the better of their in-state foes, while Auburn is historically weaker than Alabama.

Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Clemson rank #13, #16, and #25 respectively on the all-time wins list, relatively close to each other (there is a 54-game difference between Auburn and Clemson, compared to a 184-game separation between Auburn and #1 Michigan). And against Auburn’s two national titles in the modern era, Clemson claims one, while Virginia Tech can point to a championship game appearance and an empty trophy case waiting to be filled.  All in all, there’s not really a major difference here. They’re a step below Alabama and Notre Dame, but a step above schools that haven’t sniffed at a #1 finish.

Yet Clemson has a hard time gaining national respect. Part of this comes from perception of the strength of the ACC as a whole. However, the simplest explanation (usually the best) is that the Tigers haven’t won big lately. Despite the programs’ similarities, by any standard Auburn and Virginia Tech have had a much better two decades than Clemson.  Since Ford left Clemson, Auburn has finished in the top 10 five times, including three undefeated teams, only one of which managed to win a national title. The Hokies have had six top-10 seasons in the same span, including eight major bowl games. Clemson has had one top-10 finish, when Ken Hatfield won the ACC with Ford’s players in 1990, and had zero major bowl games until last year’s Orange Bowl shellacking.

Ultimately, the answer to the question “Why doesn’t Clemson get any respect as a major football program?” is the same as the answer to the question “Why has Clemson football stunk for 20 years?” Despite Mandel’s Montana metric, the real measurement for a program’s strength is winning games. LSU and Oregon have pushed their way into the national elite in the last decade by winning games; Tennessee and UCLA have probably fallen out by losing them, as did Army and Minnesota decades ago.

If Clemson had a record like Auburn’s over the last two decades, both sets of Tigers could be spoken of at the same level. So while Clemson might deserve more respect than it gets, the solution is simple. Elite programs don’t go twenty years without a conference title, and they don’t give up 70 points in their bowl game. If Clemson wants to be considered an elite program, it has to play like one. The future looks brighter for Clemson than it has for some time, and maybe in this decade the Tigers will regain the place they held during the 1980s.

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10 thoughts on “Clemson and Its Perception Among College Football’s Elite

  1. I think if it could be summed up in a phrase, the problem is being, as you put it, “Notorious for losing games they should win.” It’s sad that it’s happened so much that “Clemsoning” has become a verb.

    I hope they’re able to be more successful in the future. For their sake, and the sake of the ACC, I’d love to see Miami, Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech all fighting for positions in the Top 10 in the country, and taking turns at playing for national championships.

    I am cautiously optimistic that (with a few exceptions) the group of coaches in this conference has gotten better in recent years, and that ACC teams are going to start winning more OOC (including bowl) games. If that happens it will improve the perception of everyone in the conference.

    • Right. I mean, look at how the divisions were carved up when the ACC moved to 12 teams. Clemson was regarded so poorly that no one batted an eye throwing in the same division as FSU. I do believe in Dabo Swinney’s coaching ability, but first they have to change the conversation around them by winning elite bowl games.

  2. Speaking from a outsider’s point of view (Pitt fan), I’d agree that Clemson just doesn’t win big enough to be mentioned as a King. Everything else may be King-like but Clemson’s Danny Ford period was too long ago to merit residual King status anymore. Having said that, I tend to view Clemson as having tons of potential to join FSU and Miami as the ACC’s third King.

    • Agreed that Clemson is third in line, historically, after FSU and Miami, but should that necessarily be the case? I think we’ll see a definite sea change once Clemson’s new facilities are all ready to go. As touched on throughout the article and elsewhere, Dabo Swinney seems to get the Clemson culture. It’s not exactly easy to persuade top recruits to the middle of nowhere in South Carolina. But by taking an SEC mentality toward the process, they’re a tough option to ignore if you’re looking to play down south.

  3. I think you are dead on in your analysis. It shocked me to read Clemson hasn’t won an ACC championship in 20 years.

    I think when FSU and Miami moved in (and VT) and Clemson couldn’t compete (i.e. win a championship) it probably knocked them down a notch or two in the average fans’ eye.

    I like Clemson and I like Dabo, but like you said, if the perception is going to change, they have to start winning some games.

    Good luck to you guys this year – especially in the first game.

    • Mentioning Virginia Tech, it does bring up another interesting debate on their own perception, and how they appear to fans given their lack of championships and big-game futility. For most teams, no matter what league, eight consecutive 10-win seasons would be an accomplishment, bolstered by four conference tiles. Yet, Tech seems to be disregarded in the conversation of “top programs.” Is it location that causes this? Conference? Or just a lack of BCS success?

      • I would say lack of BCS success. Beamer has built a fine program and he’s generally regarded to be in the upper echelon of coaches. They came joined the ACC in time to fill the void created when FSU and Miami fell off a bit.

        But in big games they have tended to lay an egg. I can recall a shellacking from LSU to open the season several years ago. They’ve lost a title game. They lost to Bama to open the season in ’09.

        I think they are generally regarded as a top 10 program, which, for VT, is about as good as you could ever expect things to be.

        • Right. And I think that’s the problem for a lot of ACC programs. Tech never has elite recruiting classes, yet still succeeds. Nonetheless, there’s a cap on that success: no better than just a top-10 ranking.

          FSU and Miami are the only schools that don’t possess that caveat, but have been down lately. If the league wants to improve its overall quality, it needs four teams that could win a national title, and another three or four whose ceiling is a top 10/15 ranking. Obviously, that’s not the case right now.

  4. I wouldnt consider Clemson an ACC power yet a National power. Sure they won the ACC last season in an extremely weak group. But they were destroyed by a mediocre Big East team. Clemson did win a title over 30 years ago but unless I’m mistaken it was tainted with endless NCAA violations that led to the coaches dismissal. My view of Clemson is everytime they take a step forward they take two steps back. They have potential to be a good team but they are going to need a proven coach and a decade in the top 10 to jump up to a higher bracket.

    • Clemson’s not new to this conversation. And as Joel points out, their overall resume compares pretty favorably to Auburn and Virginia Tech. The crux of his argument is proper evaluation of their place in both the ACC and national consciousness, and there is no easy answer. They possess a title, have played in 34 bowl games, rank among the top-40 winningest programs of all-time and also play in a football-crazed state. The issue, in my eyes is consistency. They have two extended periods of elite success (’48-’59 and ’77-’90), but just one breakthrough for a title. In my opinion, if we’re not going to discount other schools for their myriad issues in the past, then why disparage Clemson? They’re a program based in great tradition and moderate success. And are one of several schools that can really make a leap up a tier with another string of wins.

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